Lieutenant Templeton Peck ducked under the low door of the bar and paused to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. You’d never know it was four in the afternoon in here; it could easily be midnight, or later. Which, he conceded, was probably the point: people who hung out here probably wanted to lose contact with the rest of the world, including time.
It wasn’t his sort of place. If he had a sort, that is, which he wasn’t really sure of. He hadn’t been places to drink before Germany - unless you counted a frat house worried about cops. He’d actually wished once or twice that he hadn’t gone to college in California, watching other states drop the drinking age to match the draft. And if he had, and then he wouldn’t have met Leslie ... so he’d still be in college, and wouldn’t have ever been to Germany. Wouldn’t have discovered the bliss that was a rathskeller, or Oktoberfest. That was probably his sort of place, he decided. Well-lit, and filled with crowds of happy, singing drinkers.
Nobody here was a happy drunk. Nobody here was drinking for enjoyment. The despair was so thick in the air it probably altered the taste of the liquor. Not, he thought wryly, that that would be a bad thing. The place smelled like extremely cheap booze. And that, too, was probably an attraction.
He almost left without checking the place out. The man he was looking for probably wouldn’t be here; Peck certainly doubted this was the pilot’s sort of place, either. Murdock was a bit of a fish out of water, but not this much. He was an anomalous captain among the warrant officers, mostly ones and twos, who flew the choppers, and not anybody’s commanding officer either – well, his crew, but not a unit. He’d said he could fly fixed-wing aircraft, and that plus his rank probably meant he’d come over from the Air Force. That was weird, but the only other reasonable explanation was that he was some kind of special civilian – CIA or something; God knew Viet Nam was lousy with spooks. Or ex-spooks, in Murdock’s case. Maybe.
Maybe ex-spook, maybe not. Maybe just inactive. Who could tell? Murdock didn’t talk much about his past, which probably meant it was murky, considering how chatty he was about other things. Good soldiers like the colonel didn’t want to think about how deeply the intelligence services had their hooks into the army and this stinking war, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t true.
Peck liked the colonel well enough. He was a good commander, the best Peck had had so far, but then that wasn’t saying much; he’d only been in the army for a little more than a year. And he’d never meant to stay much longer. It was true that his ultimate goal had changed – time apparently did have a way of healing wounds, or at least making you realize that the only thing stupider than letting a woman (anybody, really) make that kind of impact on your life, mess up your mind that badly, was to act like they had. Especially when they wouldn't even know it.
He could barely remember why he'd had the idea. From twenty-one, nineteen seemed very young and foolish - and far away. And so, more to the point,did twenty: it was twenty that hadn't been satisfied with Germany and had insisted on getting to Viet Nam somehow. Apparently, getting that close to realizing the notion had been enough - either that or it was a good thing it had taken this long to get here. At any rate, he no longer wanted to die. He wasn't even sure if he ever had wanted that, really, or if he'd just wanted to make some grand, theatrical gesture.
Whichever, he was over it. Over her. And had no intention of ever mentioning either her, or his original motivation for ending up here, to anybody. Especially not the colonel, or that rather intimidating sergeant. Baracus would give him a lecture and be even more a mother hen than he already was. And Colonel Smith? He'd give him a bracing lecture, and then watch him even more closely than the sergeant - though he'd be watching for something else altogether. Baracus would be worried he'd get hurt; the colonel would be making sure he was still fit to serve. Still fit to command, really.
Peck knew he was still mostly on probation with the colonel. Sure, he was on the A Team, now that he'd gotten his promotion, silver bars instead of butter, but the colonel was a careful man some ways - some ways reckless as the man he was called after, Hannibal the Carthaginian, but other ways cautious. Slow to warm up to someone new, slow to believe they were as good as he was, slow to trust his men to them. A mustang - and Omar Bradley to the contrary - John Smith wouldn't make general. But he was a good soldier, a good commander. And Peck wanted to be worthy of his trust.
The thing was, he himself wasn’t a good soldier. Not to say he didn’t mean to do his duty and all that, but staying in uniform for the next twenty years? Not going to happen. The colonel was a good commander, and a good man, but Peck didn’t intend to hand his life over to anyone, ever let anyone get that close again. He didn’t have to worry, though. Soon enough the army would move one of them somewhere else, and he’d be able to quit once his time was up. He rather thought he’d use GI Bill money to go back to college. Law school, after all. Maybe politics, in the end. Senator Templeton Peck had a nice ring to it.
But the colonel thought he was here because he wanted to be. Well, because he wanted to serve his country, that is. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He'd listened to Kennedy, and it had been inspiring in the moment, but even then he'd known his country wasn't going to do anything for him. To him, maybe, but not for him. He was going to have to do for himself; he always had. (Well, maybe not always. But as far back as he could remember.) He didn't mind public service if it paid well, but spending the next twenty or thirty years letting someone else tell him what to wear and how to cut his hair, while paying him poorly and letting people try to kill him? No. Was not going to happen.
But that didn't mean he had to tell the colonel that. Or Sergeant Baracus, either. Just like he wasn’t going to tell anyone about anything else.
Though he might tell Murdock something, some day. The pilot was an odd duck - chatty but private and with a skewed sense of humor that sometimes left Peck scrambling to catch up - but he liked him. They liked each other, almost from the very beginning. Baracus had been acting like he was made of spun sugar (just because he liked to look good didn't mean he was, well, soft or something), and the colonel hadn't wanted him around. At that point, only a couple of days in country, he'd very much wanted to be in the colonel's unit - it was as good a place as any and better than most for getting in harm's way. So when the colonel had challenged him to find him a Cadillac or Town Car, he'd taken him up on it, and he'd pulled it off, much to everyone's surprise. And Murdock, who'd been hanging around, had tagged along to watch. Peck hadn't really understood why - if it had been Baracus, it would have been to baby sit, but an army pilot? And then Murdock had hugged him and said "Mazel tov, muchacho!" and Peck had felt an unfamiliar emotion surge through him. He'd masked it by striking a pose and accepting the adulation, but underneath he'd been confused as hell.
He still was, more often that not, when the pilot was around. But feeling confused didn't stop him from also feeling comfortable, oddly enough. Considering how uncomfortable he was most of the time, he'd decided to stop worrying about it and just embrace the feeling. Baracus was his sergeant and Smith was his colonel, and he liked them both well enough and more than he'd expected, but Murdock? Murdock was his friend.
And while he was looking for Murdock, with an eye to an in-between-missions night spent drinking and talking, he didn't think this place was where he was going to find him, no matter what that warrant-one over at the helo field had said. The pilot was a lot, well, happier than this place. On the other hand, the man had sounded pretty certain: "The mood he was in when he left here, if I was looking for him I wouldn't. But if I had to find him," he'd shrugged and added directions. So Peck figured he might as well take a better look rather than have to come back. This wasn't the sort of place he wanted to have to come back to.
He stepped further inside the gloom, looking around. At least he'd stood there long enough for his eyes to adapt. Most of the clientele - maybe all of them - were Americans. A few might, given the makeup of the war (and that was odd, really; the news had always made this sound a purely American adventure), be Aussies or even leftover Frenchmen - so far his high-school French had been very useful, though he had a feeling his accent was disintegrating enough to make Sister Teresa cry - but none seemed to be locals. That was one of the few things that made it seem like a place Murdock might go; he didn't enjoy socializing with the Vietnamese. Face wasn't entirely sure why, he loved it, but then again if Murdock really had been part of the black-ops past of the war it made some sense... He found it hard to believe the place wasn't on the MPs' list for off-limits, and was glad his new bars were black on the cammies' collar instead of light brown, not so noticeable. If he'd had brains, he'd have taken them off, but then he hadn't expected to fetch up here.
He'd decided that Murdock wasn't here and was turning to go when it caught his eye. Such a little thing - a glint of light on glass. He turned to see what it was and there after all the pilot was, sitting alone in a dark corner, head down and staring at the table or, more likely, his drink. A little surprised but glad he hadn't left, Peck headed that way through the hurrying waiters, all tiny, and the crowded tables. When he got there, he wished he had turned around and gone someplace else.
Murdock was sitting in the corner of the booth, his left arm stretched out on the table, sleeve rolled up above his elbow. A rubber strap was wrapped around his arm, looped under and pulled tight, the long end held in his teeth to maintain the tension. He was holding a hypodermic in his right hand; his eyes were fixed on his arm, but he did glance up as Peck's shadow fell across the table.
"Murdock!" Peck glanced around briefly before sitting across from the pilot. "What the hell are you doing?"
Murdock paused and then laid the needle down so he could take the end of the rubber strap in his hand, freeing up his mouth. “What does it look like? Sheesh, Peck.” He took the strap between his teeth again and picked up the hypo.
Peck wanted to look away but found he couldn’t. The needle slid into the blue vein bulging under Murdock’s pale skin; he pushed the plunger slowly, sighing softly. The rush hit within seconds; his brown eyes closed and the expression on his face made Peck uncomfortable, but he couldn't take his eyes off it. After a long moment Murdock pulled the needle out and dropped the hypo on the table, loosening the strap and flexing the fingers of his left hand.
Peck picked up the hypo and rolled it in his fingers. The glass was cool and smooth; the end of the needle was slick with blood. He felt an inexplicable urge to touch the tip, feel the blood on his fingertips, maybe even feel the horse itself, the slick dreamfilled poison... The urge scared him, and he carefully put the needle back down; to cover the reaction he picked up the little vial, which was still about a quarter full.
“You want to stay away from this stuff.” Murdock sounded ridiculously stern, considering he was coiling up the strap as he spoke.
“No fear,” Peck said, using the term he’d picked up from some of the Aussies he’d met in-country. “When I want to get smashed I drink.”
“Wise choice,” Murdock nodded owlishly. “The army loves boozers.”
That was true, but it hardly mattered.
“Then why don't you?"
“You said it,” Murdock said. “Drinking is to get smashed. I already am. This," he reached across and the table, not a long reach, and took the vial away from Peck and shook it at him, "is for fixing me up.” He put it down and picked up the hypo, wiping it off on a piece of cloth.
Peck shook his head. "'Smashed' is a pretty strong word." He picked up the vial again.
"Yeah, it is." Murdock tucked the hypo into a leather case that looked like he'd gotten it from a nurse. That seemed to be all he meant to say.
Peck put the vial down again and Murdock took it and stuck it in his pocket. "So why do you use it?"
Murdock misunderstood. "I told you: it fixes me up."
"No, the word. What do you mean, you're smashed? And I hope you don't use that stuff when you're flying," he added as the thought came to him.
Murdock looked both pained and insulted. "Of course not," he insisted. "I'm grounded for two whole days - too many hours this month. Who are they kidding? Too many hours..." His voice trailed off.
Peck wasn't sure; maybe he should let it go. But how the hell could he? He did trust Murdock that he never flew high, probably because he wasn't making any effort to hide it. But that wasn't the only problem here, just because that was okay didn't make the rest of it even remotely that way. "So why?" he repeated.
Murdock sighed, a heavy, long sigh that sounded not so much long-suffering as just genuinely suffering. His brown eyes looked even darker in the dimness, but Peck could still see that they were haunted. "Because I am. Christ, Peck, anybody who's been here more than a year is broken - which is why," he addded with some ill-placed asperity, a poor imitation of the colonel's instructional mode, or maybe, Peck thought, not an imitation; maybe this was just the way Murdock sounded when he decided to get into your business, "which is why you should be shopping for your next assignment instead of letting Smith con you into sticking around here for another six months. Just because you Special Forces guys can stay longer doesn't mean anybody with half a brain does."
"Don't change the subject."
"I'm not. How long have you been here? I know you told Hannibal you'd stay for a second tour. Don't you stay here longer than that; I'm dead serious. You stay here too long and this war will chew you up and spit you out, and that's if you're lucky. I've been here for eight years. I know what I'm talking about. I'm broken. Booze doesn't cut it anymore. This does." He smiled suddenly. "There's a reason they call it a fix, you know."
Peck didn't like the word, but he used it. “But when it wears off, nothing's changed. You’re still broken.”
“Okay, maybe it’s not a fix, then.” He laughed. “That’s funny, isn’t it?”
Peck didn’t laugh.
“Oh, come on. It’s funny. You know what? You’re young, that’s what your problem is. The young take everything so serious. It’s all so black and white.”
“I’m not young.” Peck heard himself reacting, but he couldn’t help it; people were always treating him as too young, just because he was smart enough to be ahead of his age peers. Graduated high school early, early admissions to UCLA... Now it was worse than annoying; he wasn’t a child. Murdock didn’t treat him that way – nor did the colonel, even if he did call him “kid” – but anybody calling him young put his back up. At least he was able to stop talking before he said anything too whiny, made the comment true.
“Oh, come on. What are you?” Murdock looked at him with eyes beginning to droop but narrowed in concentration. “Twenty-one? Two? I’m not saying you’re a child, but you’re young. That’s your fault, there’s so much you have to learn -”
“Oh, for God’s sake, do not quote fucking Cat Stevens at me.”
“I thought you like Cat,” Murdock said, sounding wounded.
“I do. That doesn’t mean I live my life according to his songs,” Peck said, annoyed with himself for swearing. But he was just so damned exasperated. Murdock could do that to him faster than anyone else he had ever known. He wished he understood why the pilot’s opinion was important to him.
“Okay,” Murdock conceded. “But still, it’s true. You’re young. Things seem cut and dried to you. No give. No leeway.”
"Leeway? What are you, crazy?"
"Not yet," the pilot said with a lopsided grin. "Not yet... Look, you gonna carry on much longer? 'Cause I need to get some sleep."
"You're going back to your quarters like this?"
"Hell, no," was the almost reassuring answer. "I got me a nice little hooch. Why don't you come over?" He stood up and pulled on his jacket, the one with the faded Flying Tigers logo painted on the back, swaying slightly as he did. Peck jumped to his feet at once; Murdock was in no condition to go anywhere on his own. The pilot added, "You can yell at me some more once we get there."
But he didn't, of course. By the time they got to the block where most of the Americans who lived off base had their rooms or, if they could afford it, like Murdock could, their huts, Murdock was too gone to listen, so Peck didn't waste his breath. Murdock dropped his jacket on the foot of his cot and pulled out a bottle of Tiger beer and handed it to him, and then sat down on the cot and pulled off his boots. When he'd lined them up with millimetric precision he looked up at Peck still standing in the middle of the tiny space. "You can lecture me any time, you know," he said, "and the sooner the better if you want me to actually hear it."
The walk through the crowded streets, Murdock leaning on his shoulder off and on and nobody paying any attention, had cured Peck of any desire to talk about it. Murdock had to have heard it all before, and from people with a lot more weight to them than him. Talking wasn't going to accomplish anything; at least, talking to Murdock wasn't. He shook his head. "Is there any point to it?"
Murdock grinned up at him and shook his head back at him. Then he lay down on the cot and crooned wordlessly to himself for a few minutes before falling asleep. Peck drank the beer and looked around the hut, postponing the inevitable decision.
There wasn't much here personal. In fact, the only thing that was was a picture postcard from Alaska. Murdock was from Texas, Peck knew; looking over to make sure the pilot was actually asleep he pulled the postcard from the frame around the cloudy mirror and flipped it over. The real wide open spaces; come up this way when you shake free. No signature, postmarked July 1968... almost three years ago. He wondered who'd sent it, wondered if Murdock ever intended to go. It was easier than wondering what he was going to do about this.
As if he didn't already know.
Murdock obviously trusted him not to turn him in. Hell, he hadn't even asked him not to. And he didn't want to let the man down. But this wasn't some minor infraction. And Murdock wasn't the only one involved, either. He should tell someone if only to cover his own ass. If somebody else did, and it came out that he’d known, it could shoot down his career, too. Not that he was all that crazy about his career – not that he’d ever thought of it as a career. But he needed a clean record to get into law school.
And somebody needed to get Murdock some help. Some real help, not self-medication with illegal Schedule I drugs. Except if anyone found out he was using, he'd lose his license faster than it took for a hit to take hold. The very thought of Murdock not flying, locked up in a cage somewhere even if it was a medical one (which there was no guarantee of, actually) was scary. If the pilot was 'broken' now, he'd be smithereens if that happened...
And if the colonel found out, it would be all over. Smith not only wouldn't ever let any of his men into a chopper Murdock was flying, he'd make sure it was reported up the pilot's chain of command. More: Peck knew if the colonel ever found out that he’d known, he’d be out on his ear.
He sighed and dug another bottle of Tiger out of the ice chest. Then he sat down in the raggedy rattan chair and put his feet up on the end of Murdock's cot, crossing them at the ankles, and watched Murdock sleep. Hell. He'd just have to keep an eye on the pilot, that was what it came down to. He wasn't a habitual user, that was pretty obvious - at least, he didn't use if there was a chance he'd be flying. Maybe he could talk the colonel into getting him attached to them somehow, keep him on alert, ready to fly all the time. Something...
He turned the bottle around in his hands, watching the light play off the brown glass. Funny how the big decisions got made without your brains taking part, he thought. And then the tune Murdock had been humming finally placed itself. Someone to watch over me...
Maybe brains were overrated. So far things had worked out, hadn't they? He looked around the hooch again. Worked out really well, there, Templeton, he thought wryly. This was way better than a UCLA dorm room with the LSATs coming up. Though in a funny way maybe it was... He glanced at the sleeping pilot. He'd have turned in any one of his frat brothers in a similar situation rather than go down with him. This was better.
He could do this. He'd have to. Even if it turned out that this time he should have listened to his brain, not made one more emotional decision and have it turn out, this time, to be the one he couldn't handle, the one his brain was right in rejecting. Because this time he could tell he was looking at the long term... Senator Peck couldn't have this kind of baggage.
But Templeton Peck couldn't see jettisoning it.
Hell with it. He took a long drink of the Indonesian beer, even though he didn't care for it all that much, and settled down in the chair, shifting his weight to get comfortable. An in-between-missions night of drinking is what he'd been after, and it was what the universe had handed him - in a typically screwed up kind of way, of course, but he could handle it.
He could handle it all.
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